The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Free cultural works! Come get your free cultural works!

It’s official: pictures in the Folger’s Digital Image Collection are now licensed CC BY-SA! That is, they can be used under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0 International License, one of the two Creative Commons licenses “approved for free cultural works.” That’s almost 80,000 images, and counting. We’ve already started adding images to Wikimedia Commons for use in Wikipedia and elsewhere, and encourage you to do the same. Here’s the message that now appears at the bottom of every page in the database:

Creative Commons License.

Unless under non-Folger copyright, images are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This allows you to use our images without additional permission provided that you cite the Folger Shakespeare Library as the source and you license anything you create using the images under the same or equivalent license. For more information, including permissions beyond the scope of this license, see Permissions Policy. The Folger waives permission fees for non-commercial publication by registered non-profits, including university presses, regardless of the license they use.

I’m not a lawyer, but basically this means you can do whatever you want with Folger digital images as long as you say that they’re from the Folger, and as long as you keep the cycle of sharing going by freely sharing whatever you’re making (UPDATE: This is “free” as in “freedom” or “free speech”—whether use is commercial or not doesn’t make a difference with a CC BY-SA license). If you don’t want to (or can’t) share the thing you’re making with Folger images under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, that’s okay, it’s just that you’ll have to take another step or two depending on whether your product is non-profit or not. If it’s a non-profit product that won’t be released under a CC BY-SA license, the one step is to obtain signed permission from the Folger’s Image Request Coordinator. If it’s a commercial product that won’t be released under a CC BY-SA license, you not only need signed permission, you need to pay a license fee to the Folger.

Let’s take look at some examples…

Engraving of people peering through eyeglasses.
Detail of “Conspicilla” from Jan van der Straet, Nova reperta, circa 1600. Folger ART Vol. f81 no.15.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist the visual pun.)

One of the first things I did when the license changed was look for Wikipedia articles in-scope for Folger holdings that didn’t (yet!) have illustrations. Usually, I didn’t need to do anything but add the picture in the appropriate place because someone else had already written perfect lead-in text. The article about the 1825 English play Paul Pry, for example, had a whole paragraph describing John Liston’s canonical costume for the title character, and how his image appeared “on signs, shops, warehouses, handkerchiefs, and snuff boxes,” as porcelain figurines, and “even stamped on butter.” But there was no picture to help readers visualize this. The Folger collection doesn’t include any actors represented in butter (thank goodness) but porcelain figurines, snuff boxes, and such like? Oooooh yeah. There were several “Paul Pry” images I could have used, but I ended up going with one that showed a hand-colored lithograph and three figurines in the same shot:

Wikipedia Paul Pry
“Productions” section of the Wikipedia article on the play Paul Pry (accessed August 11, 2014)

Keep in mind that some Folger images reproduce works that are themselves under copyright protection, so you’ll still need to secure permission from the copyright holder before using them beyond “fair use.” When that copyright is owned by the Folger, though, permission is already granted: the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0 International License applies. Major examples of copyrights held by the Folger include the Goode Collection of ca. 15,000 photographic negatives of Royal Shakespeare Company productions, 1958-1968 and the C. Walter Hodges collection of Elizabethan and other theatre drawings, 1933–1990.

Pen-and-ink drawing of characters on a stage
C. Walter Hodges’s imagined reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, act 1, scene 3, being performed in an Elizabethan theatre. Drawn for The Globe Restored, published by Ernest Benn, 1953. Folger Shakespeare Library ART Box H688 no.3.1

These are just a few examples of the tens of thousands of “free culture” pictures available at So what are you waiting for? As the saying goes, Get Excited and Make Something!

Updated August 13, 2014 to clarify meaning of “free”


  • This is very interesting and encouraging. However, I’m unsure what happens if I publish with a commercial press (for example, Palgrave Macmillan) even though there is unlikely to be any profit for either me or the press from what I publish the image in! If the author has to pay a fee to the Folger in such an instance, this effectively means that an image will not be used. Please could you clarify?

    • That’s good news indeed, Erin. Thanks very much for the reply and thanks to the Folger for making these images available under this arrangement.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)